Living in the least populated state in the nation has its perks: uncrowded trails, few traffic jams, a slower pace of life.
But for professional artists, life in Wyoming also brings unique challenges: few potential buyers, a small market and geographical remoteness. And during the holidays — a season when artists typically do the best business — that pain can be keenly felt.
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“I love what I do, and it can be hard sometimes,” said Danine Donaho, who runs the Lander-based screen-printing business Snowdeep Designs. “I have internal debates — should I just make a salary and teach? Parts of my life would be so much simpler.
“But then I remember, communities need people like me — people bringing art and creativity into their lives,” Donaho said. For her and fellow artist Lori Hunter, this inspired the creation of the Wyoming Art Drop, a new kind of subscription art service that made its inaugural deliveries just in time for the holidays.
Their unorthodox marketing model is just one example of the creative ways artists are hustling to make a living statewide. It’s also emblematic of how the challenges inherent in Wyoming also engender innovation.
Lander artist Hunter was struck with inspiration one evening last spring. Subscription services are taking off for countless retail items — groceries, entertainment, even clothing. Why not art?
She brought the idea to fellow artist Donaho, and soon, the Wyoming Art Drop was born.
“When I first thought of it, I pictured a monthly subscription like other ones I’d seen,” Hunter said. “But after better understanding logistics with [business partner] Dannine, we decided that an annual subscription would suffice.”
The Art Drop, they reasoned, presented a way to get Wyoming artists’ names and work out to a broader audience. The idea was simple: Collect tangible keepsakes from artists statewide and ship the collection in a box in early December before the holidays.
The first iteration included work from six artists from across the state, each working in a different medium. Three came from Lander: Hunter upcycled books into unique journals, Donaho screen printed Wyoming Territory T-shirts and the Low Water String Band provided two CDs. Favian Hernandez from Laramie made paper mache jackalopes, Jenny Dowd of Alpine contributed starry ceramic mugs and Beth Ann Snesko of Casper made stunning copper earrings.
Each artist contributed 50 items, and was paid a stipend. The boxes cost $135 each with free shipping if purchased early enough.
Twenty boxes sold, which Donaho and Hunter feel proud of.
“We’re building momentum,” Donaho said. “Next year, our name will be out there a little more, and we’ll likely have more sales.”
Donaho and Hunter said it was challenging to get people to understand the vision this year, but once folks did, they loved it.
Wyoming is the ninth largest state in the union by area but has the smallest population (less than 600,000 people).
“Wyoming is a profoundly rural place. Any industry has challenges. Our small population is spread out over a very large area,” said John Dick, board member of SAGE Community Arts — a Sheridan-based organization that aims to support local artists.
Wyoming’s landscape is also isolating, especially in the winter. Taken together, it adds up to a challenging scenario for a budding artist, Dick said.
“For an artist to grow their practice, they need more people who want to buy original art, which can be hard to find here,” Dick said. “How do we expose our small population to more arts and get them thinking about buying or acquiring original art?”
For a lot of consumer goods, Wyoming has become an “order online society,” according to Donaho. Some items aren’t available locally, so people get in the habit of shopping on the internet. Competing with big retailers as a small artist is challenging, Donaho said, and many consumers don’t realize the impact that shopping locally could have on Wyoming artists.
An additional challenge for artists in Wyoming lies in the rugged conditions and access to materials.
Ceramicist Jenny Dowd of Alpine plans months in advance for her clay shipments, most of which come from Montana. The reasons for this are twofold: roads often close in the winter, and temperatures are so low that the clay can freeze the moment it leaves the delivery truck. Dowd said that it’s often more costly to find and acquire supplies in Wyoming than it is for artists elsewhere.
Tapping into outside markets
Even though the resident population is small, tourism brings in a lot of additional buyers. In 2018, Wyoming welcomed 8.9 million overnight visitors, which brought in $3.8 billion in revenue.
Many artists tap into that market by making some of their work tourist friendly, keepsakes that remind folks of their time here.
“My first love is oil painting, but the screen printed T-shirts are what sell,” Donaho said of her popular Wyoming tees.
Dowd caters to tourists — but with limits. She’s trained in sculpture first, but sculptures don’t sell. Pottery does.
“I make a few things that are very tourist friendly, like an image of the Tetons on a mug. But I’ve resisted making my work ‘stereotypical Wyoming,’” Donaho said. “When I moved [to Wyoming], people advised me to put moose or bison on my stuff to make it sell. That’s just not my style. I’m not going to be inauthentic and slap a bison on something so it sells.”
In Sheridan, Dick also sees value in artists’ place-based work. He says that people come into SAGE looking for local artwork and scenes from the area.
“Can we do a call for art that is focused on scenes of the Bighorns or around Wyoming? The more we can develop pieces of art that reflect the area, the more we can tap into tourists passing through town,” he said.
For artists, traveling outside of Wyoming can be costly in energy, time and money. Donaho has observed that “artists here need to broaden their horizons to get their [work] outside of the state. But it can be super expensive and take a lot of time to leave Wyoming, which is hard.”
Most artists in Wyoming say they need to keep multiple jobs and skill-sets to make it here. Donaho teaches painting, screen printing, owns a retail store and makes her own work. She’s worn other hats too in the Lander art community at various times to piece together a livable income.
In Sheridan, Dick sees similar trends. Artists often build followings through classes and workshops and are able to leverage that exposure to sell more art with time, he said.
Yet with the right conditions, some artists can earn livings from their art alone. For years, Dowd also held various jobs in the art world — teacher, volunteer coordinator, gift shop employee — and did her own work on the side. Eventually, enough commissioned work came her way that she decided to quit her job and only make pottery. That was in 2012, and she continues to make it work today.
“Honestly, a lot of my success has to do with access to Jackson [tourists], since Alpine is such a small town,” Dowd said.
Artists also speak of a unique culture of collaboration in Wyoming.
“We can’t afford to be competitive and try to undercut others,” Donaho said. “Instead, artists here build each other up. How can I help other artists sell their work? We see Wyoming Art Drop as a microcosm of the culture that we want to perpetuate.”
Dowd said the first thing she noticed about the Wyoming art scene was the camaraderie. That manifests in “artists not withholding opportunities here.” Dowd said. “Other artists give me references, and I offer people clients when I’m not the right person.”
There’s also a unique opportunity in such small communities to build collaborations across mediums, where artists are invested in the outcome of amazing work and “not their personal gain,” Dowd said.
Dick said he’s observed a supportive vibe as well. He’s heard from artists who come to Sheridan to show their work that Wyoming has a much more cooperative energy than in other areas of the country.
“Maybe it’s part of the character of the West, but I think it’s also … trying to make it work here in a profoundly rural state,” he said.
Dowd and Donaho spoke of increased public funding for art projects, which leads to more individual commissions as well.
“The amazing part about Wyoming,” Donaho said, “is that you get a lot of one-on-one support. If you apply for a grant, it’s not uncommon for the person reading and evaluating [the grant] to call you personally to make suggestions to improve your chances. That just doesn’t happen in other places.”
Dick pointed out that people from other states are “always surprised with the support for the arts in Wyoming, even in really small towns, and how many people turn out for shows.
“We’re lucky to live in this place,” he said.